Words by Phill Pappas
Illustration by Addison J. Billingsley

Co-founding member of the iconic Wu-Tang Clan, GZA, has announced plans to release an album titled Dark Matter, in 2013, which will focus on physics, the cosmos, and science. Dark Matter will be a clean, focused vehicle for science education through the filter of hip-hop, coming from the GZA/Genius himself (a.k.a. “Voltron’s head”). Although a departure from his C.V., those who celebrate the verbal acuity of his rhymes should have no problem believing the natural progression of storytelling (at its most basic level) and the varied interests of an artist over the span of a career may take an individual in multiple directions.

With the announcement of Dark Matter, GZA adds physical science[1] to his already-professed fascinations with chess and attacking necks (the former of which he plays daily with his cousin, and sharpest mufuckah of them all, RZA, the latter he presumably does at all times). Through various articles and interviews, it seems that GZA’s goal with the album is to introduce the physical sciences in an accessible and intriguing way to kids who otherwise may find the doldrums and innocuous qualities of school – and, in particular, the sciences – too much of a burden for their uninspired shoulders. In a sense, GZA seeks to inspire, and honestly, he’s probably got a better chance than Clifford Smith, the random eleventh-grade physics teacher at Jefferson High School in Dayton, Ohio.

If GZA is able to inspire any quantifiable number of people, then he’s successfully shed some light onto one of the many problems with the educational system in this country: it isn’t the material, but rather the delivery of the subject matter and the method of the man. We study the efficacy of school curriculum, after school programs, pre-school, Head Start and such to gather a sense of what’s working to increase reading and writing levels, and math scores, with the end goal of increased high school graduation rates.

And in the pursuit of pushing and escorting and dragging a couple more kids across milestones, percentages, standardized test scores and inflated grades, for a few more bodies to cross a half-hearted finish line, do we ever look at the issue from an outside perspective and realize that the problem isn’t with the students, but lies with the system’s inability to inspire its patronage?

When it comes to education, boredom and inspiration are constructs that cannot be measured in the physical world, but they do weigh heavily. As we have advanced as a people since the industrial revolution, it appears that we have reversed the roles that these two constructs occupy. Back when little Gary worked on the farm all day, standing behind an ox and plow in the mid summer’s heat, pondering things like drought for eight hours at a time, or splitting wood for a good stretch at the end of August, ruminating about how much he hated his dad for not letting him go to school, we would look at Gary’s life and say, “Gary found farm life uninspiring. Sure he woke up every day and tended to the fields, but he wanted to learn about the world, he sought knowledge past what the farm could teach.”

And nowadays, Gary sits in a classroom while a teacher drones on about some crap that neither teacher nor pupil actually care about, and anyway Gary has access to a smartphone where he can Google anything, and sext with girls, and the American dream is alive within Gary – he is too young to know what he wants to become, but he is just old enough to start getting discouraged by bad test scores and malevolent authority figures (among other things) within the system. And Gary’s new reality consists of an eight-hour stretch in the classroom, books closed, thinking about everything outside of the classroom; Gary now seeks the real over the theoretical.[2]

The paradigm has shifted, but the education system from levels K-12 (or whenever standardized testing begins these days) has refused to adapt. It’s likely exacerbating the existing problem. Students are less inspired. Schools cut art, theater, and music programs and increase exposure to test oriented math and science to increase, well, to increase standardized test scores. The material and lesson plans that focus on national testing are the exact opposite of engaging, and the ol’ dirty bastard robotically conveying constrained lesson plans that focus on tests that, in the grand scheme of things, measure exactly… fuckall, perpetuates this cycle of uninspired students “learning” from uninspired teachers.

We focus on kids as if the things they get their inspiration from are problems.[3] But where do we, as adults, get our inspiration? How many friends of yours talk about how inspired they were because of a singer they saw last night on American Idol? When’s the last time that same individual approached you and said that they’ve gained an entire new perspective on the nature of existence after reading The Fundamentals of Quantum Mechanics by Sakir Erkoē?Exactly.

With all of the testing that happens in this country’s education system, one would assume we’d yield better results, as in, it wouldn’t be possible to graduate high school if you were functionally illiterate – not that you couldn’t graduate if you couldn’t read, but that every student was an exceptional reader upon graduation.

This is where we return to the idea of who is delivering the message, and the motivations of the recipient.

The most prominent and prolific of the current science educators, or figureheads, is Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson. Although Bill Nye makes the rounds and is continuing his efforts, Dr. Tyson is the figurehead of astrophysics in this country, and his speeches, Internet videos, panel appearances, and interviews have all made him extremely accessible to laypeople. Dr. Tyson is accessible because of his enthusiasm for the subjects that he speaks about, his broad base of knowledge, and his ability to convey dense information in an exciting and clear manner. He is, essentially, a great teacher.

But even with Dr. Tyson at the helm of a public outreach initiative that aims to get young people (or people in general, really) interested in the space and science again, there are still the hurdles of trying to reach the unreachable.

Students come in all shapes, sizes, and ages, and those who adapt to school and the education system have a better time than those who don’t. And those who come from stable home environments, well, not to jump to un-cited conclusions…

How about this: there are kids who go to school, open books and learn, and there are kids for whom school is a complete waste of their time, because the things they learn in school aren’t applicable to their current lives outside of school. As in, who the fuck cares what the name of a Second Lieutenant was in the Civil War when you go home and your house doesn’t have electricity, and there’s no food, or your parent is abusing you, or you just don’t give a fuck about school, or you’re dyslexic, or whatever reason. What the kid is learning in school is not applicable to their reality outside of school. The list of reasons for scholastic apathy is much longer, and normally less extreme, but what seems apparent is that for some kids the traditional model of education works, and for others it is an abysmal failure.

After recently attending a Method Man and Redman show, and the chaos of the show had passed, what amazed me was the duo’s ability to control their environment so deftly. Two MCs, who after 20 plus years of performing, own the space they occupy. No gimmicks, no crazy laser show, just Meth and Red rhyming, dancing around, climbing speakers, jumping into the crowd, and capturing the energy of the 400 people in attendance.

To see two people who have been performing for two decades show up and blow the minds of the audience with a bare bones approach to hip-hop is something else. Meth and Red not only controlled the energy at the venue – they owned it. They’re great at what they do, and they share their excitement with the crowd. They didn’t rhyme about the solar system that night, but you’d be correct in saying that by the end of the night if I’d seen a bag of weed on the ground, and you asked me what I was going to do, I would have responded, “pick it up, pick it up.”

This comes down to the ability to inspire. That night, the majority of the crowd was inspired to smoke weed and have a good time, which is what one can expect at a Meth and Red show. But if Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson had showed up for the encore and started blasting off about the multiverse theory, I would have stuck around and paid attention.

Anything or anyone can inspire, and inspiration is a completely subjective experience. Not to say that the message isn’t important, but, rather, the individual delivering the message and the way in which they transmit it deserves more recognition. GZA, another veteran of the hip-hop community, and his prototype for an educational hip-hop album is another step in the right direction toward getting people excited to access and experience knowledge in a new or different way, something the brick-and-mortar educational system lacks more and more with each passing LP.◥

[1] Defined as any of the natural sciences dealing with inanimate matter or with energy, as physics, chemistry, and astronomy.

[2] The argument that Gary seeks the virtual over the real, through video games, Facebook, or social media, is compelling, but I would argue that the virtual worlds of video games and social media fulfill a more “real” void in average students, than that of the theoretical undertakings of the classroom. So, the faux relationships and connectivity of social media is infinitely more compelling than the differences between mitosis and meiosis.

[3] And by “we” I mean, of course, adults who bitch and moan about “kids these days.”